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Originally published Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 4:08 PM

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Guest: Trapped as the spouse of an H-1B visa worker

As Congress wrestles with comprehensive immigration reform, lawmakers should consider the status of dependent spouses, writes guest columnist Dakshina Thekkekalathil.

Special to The Times

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LEAVING a career as a broadcast journalist with one of India’s national news channels and tagging along with my techie husband to America was a well-thought-out decision. Both of us wanted to travel the world and experience myriad cultures. I knew it would not be easy to find a job in the U.S., but I was positive that this is a land that nurtures talent and that I would find an opportunity to grow.

That wasn’t the case when I arrived in Seattle. I am on an H-4 dependent visa, which practically slams the door on all possible opportunities.

As Congress wrestles with comprehensive immigration reform, lawmakers should consider the status of dependent spouses. This might be a small facet, but one that will brighten up the lives of many women like me who are struggling to find recognition as individuals with dignity.

Under the current legal framework, dependent spouses are not permitted to earn a living. We are not eligible to get a Social Security number. My story is echoed in every nook and corner of this country.

My husband is a software engineer at a Seattle company and is here on an H-1B work visa. After two months of a break, exploring and experiencing all things new in a foreign country, I started feeling it somewhere down in my gut: a lack of purpose.

I accelerated my search for a job. My sent-mail folder is filled with emails to strangers with a plea to at least take a look at what I have to offer. Some were gentle enough to reply lauding my experience but making it clear that they were helpless.

The reality dawned. There were larger issues. I am hardly worth anything here, not even a Social Security number, sans a legal identity.

I am a shadow of my husband.

There are times when I break down over his innocent question: “What did you do the whole day?” The mind plays strange games when you have nothing to do.

I am volunteering with a nonprofit organization managing its social-media presence from home, writing for a street newspaper and taking online courses.

But I don’t want to get stuck inside these four walls. There are millions of dependent spouses languishing in their homes in the U.S., grappling to find a sense of purpose, an identity. Many of them are well-educated, with a resourceful professional history. This is a volcano of human capital that remains untapped.

The immigration overhaul promises to bring this issue under its purview and may allow H-1B spouses to work during a green-card wait.

Nobody is asking that all the benefits be made readily available. For instance, bring in improvements with riders. Allow the dependent spouses to legally work for a certain number of hours per week or month.

Additionally, volunteering hours could be made compulsory. Make sure our skills are used to develop the economy and uplift the society as well.

Give us a legal identity that will ensure a sense of belonging.

The lawmakers of the land of dreams hold the key to unlock my potential. I eagerly await what’s on the other side of the door.

Dakshina Thekkekalathil is a former senior correspondent with CNN’s India affiliate. Currently living in Seattle, she is a student, blogger and social-media intern.


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